Albion Monitor /News

UN Reports: Food and Water Crisis Ahead

by Farhan Haq

In thirty years, 2 out of 3 people will worry where to find water
(IPS)UNITED NATIONS -- Current trends in food and water consumption will result in shortages and crises for millions of people over the next 30 years if governments take no action, the United Nations warns.

Two new reports prepared by the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development examining global trends and freshwater resources contend that the vast majority of the world population could suffer "moderate to high" water stress by 2025.

"I see the water problem as one of the critical areas of unsustainability right now," says Nitin Desai, U.N. Under- Secretary-General for Sustainable Development. "About one-third of the world (already) lives under stress conditions. By 2025, it will come to two-thirds (under present trends)."

More than half the water used in agricultural irrigation never reaches the crop
A new report, "Comprehensive Assessment of the Freshwater Resources of the World," paints a gloomy picture. "Water resources constraints and water degradation are weakening one of the key resource bases on which human society is built.

"There is a steady increase in the number of regions of the world where human demands are outstripping local water supplies, and the resulting water stress is limiting the development, especially of poor societies.

"Due largely to poverty, at least one-fifth of all people do not have access to safe drinking water, and more than one-half of humanity lacks adequate sanitation," the report states.

The picture is expected to become worse by 2025, when world population is estimated to rise from its present 5.7 billion to some 8.3 billion people -- most of whom are expected to live in cities, where water stress is already high.

The report adds that increased food production will add to greater water usage, with irrigation already accounting for 70 percent of the water taken from rivers, lakes, and underground sources.

Much of that water is wasted. According to the other Commission report, titled "Global Change and Sustainable Development: Critical Trends," more than half the water used in agricultural irrigation never reaches the crop.

"It doesn't look like the world is going to end in a clap of thunder, but neither does it look that great"
The reports laud improvements in industrialized countries for lowering water wastage, but both reports contend that improvements in water management are not enough to meet the demand for water, expected to rise by 40 percent over the next three decades.

In part, the trends report warns, the present usage levels of water reflect the widespread appreciation of water as a "free good," and could be redressed if governments allocated increased co[t to water. Yet it admits that raising water prices is "a politically daunting step even in the wealthiest countries and currently infeasible in most of the developing world."

Nor is water the only potential crisis area. The trends report notes that energy consumption is expected to double by 2050, leading to potential pollution hazards.

Food productivity trends remain uneven, with food supplies stagnant in South Asia and declining in sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly 840 million people remain hungry worldwide, and the rate of chronic undernourishment has more than doubled in sub-Saharan Africa since 1969, the report says.

Despite that, the report adds, there is still enough food produced at the global level. Between 1961 and 1994, it says, "per capita food supply in developing countries increased by 32 percent and mass famines on the scale seen in the 19th and mid-20th century have not recurred." The ranks of the hungry and undernourished have also fallen over the same period, from 35 percent to 21 percent.

But the report adds that food production will have to double between now and 2050 to meet the rise in population -- a task which several counties, notably China, India, Pakistan and the United States, will likely find harder as their yields from irrigated lands are expected to decline.

"There will be a crisis if no action is taken," says Emily Matthews, one of the authors of the trends report. The food, water and energy use problems, she argues "will affect the health of millions of people and will cost a fortune" if present trends go unchecked.

But Matthews adds that, although the situation is bleak, action to address any potential crises could avert the most severe consequences. "It doesn't look like the world is going to end in a clap of thunder, but neither does it look that great," she says.

"We in the Committee on Sustainable Development are working on the presumption that, on the basis of these facts, governments will respond," Desai contends.

The water and trends reports are to be presented at the Commission's next meeting, to be held here in April, and at a special June session of the U.N. General Assembly that is to explore how far nations have come in meeting environmental commitments made at the 1992 U.N. "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro.

"The session will give the international community an opportunity to take stock," argued U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a speech this week to the Group of 77 developing nations. Annan said he hoped the session would provide an opportunity to lay out new priorities for commitment to the environment.

The Commission hopes that a priority for the meeting will be to determine a framework for water sharing and water management among nations, Desai says.

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Albion Monitor March 25, 1997 (

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